An Emerging Model for the U.K.’s Boris Johnson: F.D.R.

An Emerging Model for the U.K.’s Boris Johnson: F.D.R.


LONDON — Boris Johnson and Joseph R. Biden Jr. are hardly political bedfellows. But the British prime minister and the United States presidential candidate have one thing in common: both have latched on to Franklin D. Roosevelt as a model for how to lead in an era of economic collapse and social upheaval.

Mr. Johnson, regrouping after a rocky three months of dealing with the coronavirus pandemic, has invoked Roosevelt’s name and the legacy of the New Deal in promising that the British government will intensify its plans for ambitious public works projects and other spending to recover from the outbreak.

“This is the moment for a Rooseveltian approach to the U.K,” Mr. Johnson said in an interview with Times Radio on Monday. “The country has gone through a profound shock. But in those moments, you have the opportunity to change, and to do things better.”

Mr. Biden, the presumptive Democratic nominee, has talked about the need for an F.D.R.-style federal intervention to lift the United States out of the economic wreckage left by the virus and to address the racial injustice dramatized by the killing of black Americans at the hands of the police.

Neither man is an obvious heir to the mantle of Roosevelt, though Mr. Biden at least comes from the same party. Mr. Johnson is a Conservative populist who ran on a platform of pulling Britain out of the European Union and had, until now, modeled himself on Roosevelt’s wartime ally, Winston Churchill.

Still, there are signs that Mr. Johnson’s flirtation with Roosevelt goes beyond dropping his name. One of his closest advisers, Michael Gove, recently laid out a blueprint for the government that draws heavily on the 32nd president to justify a transformation of the bureaucracy and a new approach to governing.

“Roosevelt recognized that, faced with a crisis that had shaken faith in government, it was not simply a change of personnel and rhetoric that was required, but a change in structure, ambition, and organization,” Mr. Gove said in a lecture to the Ditchley Foundation, a nonprofit group that promotes Anglo-American relations.

Mr. Gove recalled the reform-minded outsiders that Roosevelt brought in to design the New Deal — Harry Hopkins, Harold Ickes and others — and lamented the lack of such figures in the British government.

Mr. Johnson and his aides have argued that Britain’s Civil Service is hidebound, risk-averse and hostile to their pro-Brexit ideology. On Sunday, Mr. Johnson announced the departure of the country’s top civil servant, Mark Sedwill, who was cabinet secretary and national security adviser.

His resignation follows that of the top officials at the Home Office and the Foreign Office as well as the British ambassador to Washington, Kim Darroch. It is a victory for Dominic Cummings, Mr. Johnson’s most influential adviser, who views many civil servants as part of what he calls an establishment “blob” that also encompasses the BBC, parts of the judiciary and universities. In a line that has been widely repeated, he has told aides that a “hard rain is coming” for the bureaucracy.

“They want to have a more politically directed Civil Service, which is not necessarily a politicized Civil Service, but one that they feel is responsive to political direction,” said Simon Fraser, a former head of the Foreign Office. “Where you have to be wary is if that tips over into an attack on the impartiality of the Civil Service.”

On Tuesday, Mr. Johnson is expected to visit a town in an economically blighted region to outline plans to invest in infrastructure, education and technology, testing his New Deal strategy. He has promised to “level up” places left behind by the British economy, where prosperity has flowed disproportionately to London and the southeast of England.

Fulfilling that promise is critical to Mr. Johnson’s long-term fortunes, since his political base is very different from that of previous Conservative Party prime ministers. Mr. Johnson won with the support of working-class voters in the Midlands and the north, many of whom historically voted for the Labour Party but favored Brexit and are socially conservative on issues like immigration.

“Boris Johnson won the election by developing a new formula of leaning left on the economy and right on culture, promising to deliver Brexit and reform immigration,” said Matthew Goodwin, an expert on the right and a visiting senior fellow at Chatham House, a research institute in London.

“He is talking about giving them trains, bridges and schools,” Mr. Goodwin said. “But I suspect that what this community wants is more power in decision making, and more of a say in the national conversation.”

  • Updated June 24, 2020

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      A commentary published this month on the website of the British Journal of Sports Medicine points out that covering your face during exercise “comes with issues of potential breathing restriction and discomfort” and requires “balancing benefits versus possible adverse events.” Masks do alter exercise, says Cedric X. Bryant, the president and chief science officer of the American Council on Exercise, a nonprofit organization that funds exercise research and certifies fitness professionals. “In my personal experience,” he says, “heart rates are higher at the same relative intensity when you wear a mask.” Some people also could experience lightheadedness during familiar workouts while masked, says Len Kravitz, a professor of exercise science at the University of New Mexico.

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      The steroid, dexamethasone, is the first treatment shown to reduce mortality in severely ill patients, according to scientists in Britain. The drug appears to reduce inflammation caused by the immune system, protecting the tissues. In the study, dexamethasone reduced deaths of patients on ventilators by one-third, and deaths of patients on oxygen by one-fifth.

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      The coronavirus emergency relief package gives many American workers paid leave if they need to take time off because of the virus. It gives qualified workers two weeks of paid sick leave if they are ill, quarantined or seeking diagnosis or preventive care for coronavirus, or if they are caring for sick family members. It gives 12 weeks of paid leave to people caring for children whose schools are closed or whose child care provider is unavailable because of the coronavirus. It is the first time the United States has had widespread federally mandated paid leave, and includes people who don’t typically get such benefits, like part-time and gig economy workers. But the measure excludes at least half of private-sector workers, including those at the country’s largest employers, and gives small employers significant leeway to deny leave.

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      So far, the evidence seems to show it does. A widely cited paper published in April suggests that people are most infectious about two days before the onset of coronavirus symptoms and estimated that 44 percent of new infections were a result of transmission from people who were not yet showing symptoms. Recently, a top expert at the World Health Organization stated that transmission of the coronavirus by people who did not have symptoms was “very rare,” but she later walked back that statement.

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      Touching contaminated objects and then infecting ourselves with the germs is not typically how the virus spreads. But it can happen. A number of studies of flu, rhinovirus, coronavirus and other microbes have shown that respiratory illnesses, including the new coronavirus, can spread by touching contaminated surfaces, particularly in places like day care centers, offices and hospitals. But a long chain of events has to happen for the disease to spread that way. The best way to protect yourself from coronavirus — whether it’s surface transmission or close human contact — is still social distancing, washing your hands, not touching your face and wearing masks.

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      Common symptoms include fever, a dry cough, fatigue and difficulty breathing or shortness of breath. Some of these symptoms overlap with those of the flu, making detection difficult, but runny noses and stuffy sinuses are less common. The C.D.C. has also added chills, muscle pain, sore throat, headache and a new loss of the sense of taste or smell as symptoms to look out for. Most people fall ill five to seven days after exposure, but symptoms may appear in as few as two days or as many as 14 days.

    • How can I protect myself while flying?

      If air travel is unavoidable, there are some steps you can take to protect yourself. Most important: Wash your hands often, and stop touching your face. If possible, choose a window seat. A study from Emory University found that during flu season, the safest place to sit on a plane is by a window, as people sitting in window seats had less contact with potentially sick people. Disinfect hard surfaces. When you get to your seat and your hands are clean, use disinfecting wipes to clean the hard surfaces at your seat like the head and arm rest, the seatbelt buckle, the remote, screen, seat back pocket and the tray table. If the seat is hard and nonporous or leather or pleather, you can wipe that down, too. (Using wipes on upholstered seats could lead to a wet seat and spreading of germs rather than killing them.)

    • What should I do if I feel sick?

      If you’ve been exposed to the coronavirus or think you have, and have a fever or symptoms like a cough or difficulty breathing, call a doctor. They should give you advice on whether you should be tested, how to get tested, and how to seek medical treatment without potentially infecting or exposing others.


That also explains the strong strand of social conservatism that runs through the Johnson administration, which despite years of Tory-led governments likes to portray itself as the enemy of a London-based political establishment that is out of touch with huge swaths of the country. Mr. Johnson’s vitriolic criticism of protesters who vandalized statues of Churchill plays to that part of his base.

As the debates over racial injustice continue to reverberate in Britain — and as Mr. Johnson struggles to hold together his electoral coalition — some analysts predict that he might begin to sound more like President Trump than President Roosevelt.

Unlike Mr. Biden, for whom a victory in November would empower a broader liberal agenda in the United States, Mr. Johnson governs as a Conservative, though he is still considered more moderate than Mr. Trump.

Analysts note that Mr. Johnson is trying to transform the party of Margaret Thatcher, with its credo of low taxes, lighter regulation, and less government, into something close to a European-style Social Democratic party, at least on economic matters. How he squares that circle is far from clear.

“A Rooseveltian New Deal strategy would go down fairly well with a large proportion of the electorate, and even with the Conservative electorate,” said Tim Bale, a professor of politics at Queen Mary University. “The problem he has is that this is not what most of his M.P.s joined the Conservative Party to do.”

It is also not clear that Mr. Johnson will have the fortitude to see through a program as revolutionary as the New Deal. Critics note that he is not a politician driven by conviction. His policy agenda is largely the brainchild of Mr. Cummings. While Mr. Johnson had the tactical skills to fashion a winning coalition, some doubt that he has the vision to guide his country through momentous change.

“F.D.R. was someone who had an extraordinary intuitive feel for where the public was and what the mood of the country was,” said Robert Dallek, an American presidential historian who published a biography of Roosevelt in 2017. “Does someone like Boris Johnson have that?”



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